When Hollywood producers of the most recent Tarzan blockbuster wanted to film in an achingly exotic land, full of dense equatorial jungle, fast flowing rivers and waterfalls, there was only one location that would answer their call for the wild: Gabon’s Ivindo National Park and the Kongou Falls. I went to take a closer look, to sift the fact from the fiction…
My first night at the forest rangers’ camp, the Ipassa Research Centre outside the frontier town of Makokou, was not a glamorous one. The well-built chalets looked that part but mine, at least, had no air conditioning and no running water. In the humidity of the jungle, that made for a sleepless night and the bathroom nauseatingly pungent.
I gladly climbed aboard our motorised dug-out canoe, with no less than three rangers (known locally as, “Eco Guards”) as my guides for the next few days. For three hours we carved a path down the Ivindo River, one of Gabon’s most significant, heading for the Chutes de Kongou, or Kongou Falls.
The journey itself was not without risk. Occasional areas of shallow rocks caused the otherwise powerfully deep and slow river to vastly quicken its pace. The faster flowing water propelled us toward and through clusters of large, partially submerged and partially protruding rocks. Colliding with any could have easily cracked or flooded our canoe, leaving us stranded. The anxiety on the faces of the Eco Guards clearly spelled out that the risks to the canoe were real and that they did not wish to rend asunder out here.
The flank of tall jungle trees, reaching from the water’s edge high into the skies, never ceased. The dark Guinness black waters widened and narrowed with intermittent clusters of small islands, equally dense with foliage.
Arriving at the camp, a short walk up the steep river bank, I was pleased to see a huts of surprising solidity. Camp Kongou consists of half a dozen substantial wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs spread across the jungle floor and shaded under the high canopy of the tall trees. My hut was basic but satisfactory, with a veranda style area, a double bed, mosquito net and a plastic chair. This trip was all about experiencing the natural habitat and only lattice woodwork and some wire meshing separated me from it.
A walk down to the edge of the Kongou Falls, where a small look-out hut was situated and I had transcended to a serene place. Rather than one waterfall, the ‘little’ Kongou Falls are a true cascade, with the full range spreading across 3km in width. The previously still waters rushed voluminously over steep grassy banks and plunged vertically over outcrops of rock in a haze of thunder and mist. A feast for the eyes, as I picked out little patches of aquatic tumult to watch at play.
The first hike, led by the Eco Guards, was an hour long affair to the foot of the various cascades. The forest floor was surprisingly open, beneath the thick jungle canopy above. We emerged at the water’s edge where one of the Eco Guards took to a dug-out canoe to fish, very successfully, for our supper.
The next day was a longer hike to, “Bouila N’a Ngondé,” the main larger waterfalls. The route took us back to the same vantage point at the foot of the ‘little falls’ and further across the river. With one guide left collecting wild growing limes to sell back in Makokou, we scrambled through thick undergrowth and up slippery rocks to emerge at the top of the ‘big falls.’
Here, from the vantage point of a small exposed rocky promentary, the might and the power of the falls was awesomely frightening. Over a vertical drop of 50 metres or more, thunderous torrents of dark water plummeted incessantly into a frothing, swirling cauldron below. It is claimed that the Kongu Falls are one of the world’s strongest flowing water falls and I would be hard hard pressed to disagree.
Myself and the guides took some time to appreciate the beauty and power of Mother Nature in full force before slowly returning to camp. Whilst the slower moving waters above and beneath the falls were clearly rich with aquatic life, despite the remote location, we only heard, but did not see any, animals whilst on foot.
Returning tired and sweaty by mid-afternoon, I took a much needed dip in the ‘little falls’ to freshen up. The fast flowing waters provided a wonderfully cool, soothing but unquestionably firm pummeling to a rejuvenating body.
By nightfall, I had been fed well again and returned to bed as the guides sat around the camp fire gently chatting. It seemed clear to me that they appreciated the opportunity to escape their normal daily life for a few days in the unspoiled forest. Each had an affinity with their surrounds, and a detailed knowledge of how to navigate, fish and forage from what the land and waters had to offer.
The journey back upstream was a little slower, against the current, but equally mesmeric. We caught sight of an elegant giant red crested heron, the rather ugly looking putty nosed monkey and tried hard to spot elephant, hippo, chimpanzees and other native species though none were to be seen.
It may not be the easiest place to get to but that is point of it all. To experience the journey by canoe along the river, flanked by dense virgin forest is something rare and special. Camp life is enjoyably slow and basic; a welcome juxtaposition to the ferocious tumult of the wondrous Kongou Falls and, frankly, modern life in general.
Ultimately, Tarzan shunned urban life and returned to the jungle. A plot line that I too could have easily made fact from the erstwhile fiction.
For lots more photos of the trip, take a rummage through my Instagram album.