Into the Jungle

Though we had planned on leaving at 3pm, we ended up leaving Bayanga at 4:30pm. It was yet another bumpy ride, with me squished in the front seat with a Czech parasitologist named Suzana. I have never driven through such dense jungle before. 

Of course, there were car problems. We were only 9 km away from Bai Hokou when the driver decided we couldn’t continue although I couldn’t figure out why. By then, it was night time. Luckily, Suzana had a satellite phone and we tried using it to call Chamec, the owner of the store in the village, who would hopefully go find Anna, the local WWF director, as she had no cell reception at her home. She could then send a mechanic or another car. The connection was tenuous, and we weren’t sure anything got through. It really seemed like we were going to have to spend the night in the jungle without any shelter. We were two volunteers (including myself), two Czech researchers, and handful of Ba’aka trackers all in one pick-up truck. Finally, we decided to inch forward kilometer by kilometer until we arrived at camp. Phew. 

The camp was beautiful and amazingly, it has reliable solar-powered lights and outlets. But I clearly didn’t think too much about the details because I was unprepared for the bugs. The floor of the living room hut was covered in millions of ants: an antvasion! There were rivers of black ants splitting into rivulets upon rivulets… a veritable OkavANTgo Delta. I had decided that this was normal and only mentioned it, nonchalantly, a few minutes later. Everyone instantly sprung into action as it turned out this was actually a rather extreme occurrence. All you have to do is sprinkle some water, which forms a barrier that prevents the ants from crossing and makes them return home, wherever that is. The unfathomably huge army took a whole day to march through our camp.

Meanwhile my room, which had been uninhabited for a few weeks, was overrun by lizards and ginormous spiders. I think most people who know me know that I’m generally unfazed by creepy crawlies. But when I saw the spider staring back at me, its eyes shining in the light of my headlamp, and then I saw the lizards, and then I saw an even bigger spider—I was convinced it was a tarantula—I froze in my tracks and didn’t know if I could do this. But I slept through the night. I decided on a mantra: just as the gorillas habituate to humans, I will habituate to the jungle. 

Over the next few days I learned about all the diseases you can get in the jungle such as ticks, chiggers (they burrow into your feet and if you don’t dig them out your feet will get ruined), hookworms (intestinal worms that enter from the soil into your skin) and these flies that lay eggs in your clothes that then hatch in your skin and then maggots come and out and ew ew ew ew ew. 

The morning after I arrived, I got to see the gorillas an hour earlier than my planned 11 am shift! They came right up to our camp, into the clearing that I had just decided that morning would be a good spot for a yoga mat. 

Makumba, the beautiful silverback of the fully habituated group at Bai Hokou. 

Two Czech parasitologists took up the morning shift. This is a good depiction of what we do at the camp: a guide goes out with two Ba’Aka trackers and follows the gorillas around. One group leaves camp at 6:30 am and the second leaves at 11 am to meet the first group, returning at around 5 pm. 

Kunga, the brownback. He is the oldest male after Makumba, and will become a silverback himself in about two years. 

Makumba in all his muscular glory. 

Makumba bending over to have a drink from the stream. I can only identify a few individuals but Tianna, the other volunteer who has been here for 6 months, knows them all very well. I can’t wait to be as cool as her. 

Makumba!

I couldn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I realize that it was quite special to see them out in the open. Usually, they are in thick forest through which it is difficult to see. 

Multi-tasking. 

It was pretty magical to sit in the forest while gorillas ignore you just a few meters away. Equally amazing are the Ba’Aka trackers, who seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to finding their way in forest. I had heard a lot about their mad skillz, but when we lost the gorillas for 20 minutes and were making random twists and turns through thick vegetation, I thought he was wandering aimlessly. Then we found them, high above us in trees. I would have walked right past them if the trackers hadn’t pointed them out. When it’s time to go back to camp, they find their way without a compass or any other tool. Incredible. 

This is Sopo, the youngest one! He’s adorable and is a total goofball. Tianna has witnessed him keenly observing Makumba’s butt, then sticking his finger into it. Makumba didn’t even notice. He’s done the same thing to Kunga, who promptly swatted him away. 

Makumba looking regal.

You can’t really see, but this is Sopo being carried by his mother, Mopambi. She carries him up large trees, at the tops of which he can play freely. But since he is too small to climb down the thick trunks himself, his mother brings him down. 

Makumba climbs up trees so thin that I wouldn’t trust them to hold my weight, let alone his 500-pound body. 

Makumba about to descend. 

Enough gorilla pictures for now! I have video I need to edit too. Here’s a tour of the camp:

One of the Czech researchers dissecting one of the hundreds of frogs he had caught. Did you know that in the 1930s, thousands of frogs were exported all over the world to be used as pregnancy tests? The frogs ovulate when exposed to a pregnant woman’s urine. The current global amphibian decline has been partially attributed to a fungus spread by this business. 

One of the three entrances in the perimeter of our camp. The barbed wire is to deter animals and the cans are an early warning system for elephants breaching our fence, which they gladly ignore. 

The path behind the fence that leads to the clearing where the gorillas appeared that morning.

The living room hut. 

My house! My room is the one on the right.

My shower. NBD. But of course it’s the jungle, so there’s a permanent colony of bats in the cave behind the water. Furthermore, it’s outside the camp’s borders so elephants and gorillas do frequent this area. In fact, the steps to the waterfall are partially ruined thanks to an elephant. Elephants also ruined the fridge at camp, so now we don’t have one! Geez, thanks elephants. 

The view while you shower. Prettttty awesome. 

I actually left Bai Hokou a week ago, and have been in Bayanga translating for a Czech doctor who is volunteering for a month. More updates soon! 

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