Le Parc National de la Garamba, Province Orientale, République Démocratique du Congo

Once we finished our measles vaccination campaign in Faradje, we were asked to fly west to Dungu to do the same. If you draw a line from Faradje to Dungu on the map (and there is indeed a road joining the two, though our security rules prevent us from driving along it), what you see above that line is Garamba National Park, once home to an incredible number and variety of wild animals. Unfortunately, it has for several years now been frequented by Joseph Kony’s famed Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which, some may recall, was active in Northern Uganda for many years, but eventually began to frequent areas of South Sudan, then DR Congo and Central African Republic once a number of militaries started putting more energy into pursuing them. The LRA not only terrorised and thereby displaced local populations all across the area, but they also seem to be part of the reason for a decrease in the number of wild animals in the park. Nevertheless, during the half hour flight from Faradje to Dungu in a Cessna 208 Caravan I, during which I was lucky enough to get the co-pilot seat again, we managed to see quite a few animals. Our pilot, John, could see the animals from far away, and banked the plane hard several times to get us closer for a better look.

John, pilot extraordinaire, banking left to see some elephants

I only had a wide-angle lens with me, so I took very few photos and focused on watching the animals with my own eyes, but I’ll post a couple pics anyways. In this photo, there are at least seven elephants, two of which have white birds on their backs. Can you see them all?

Seven elephants in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

If not, here are zoomed views of two different parts of the photo:

Three elephants in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo
Four elephants in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

In total, I saw about twenty elephants during the flight. We also saw well over 200 hippos by my estimate, as we flew over at least ten groups of hippos lounging along the banks of the Dungu River, which runs through Garamba National Park, and each group had at least twenty individuals. For instance, I count at least 38 hippopotamuses in this photo:

At least thirty-eight hippos in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

I didn’t get to fly the plane, but being in the co-pilot seat has its advantages regardless, mostly the chance to wear a headset and spend the entire flight chatting with the pilot and listening in on radio conversations between pilots and airport control towers.

Chris the co-pilot

As we flew over the town of Dungu to prepare for our final approach to Dungu Wando Airstrip, we got a clear view of the famed Dungu Castle. The story told about the castle’s construction is that the Belgian administrator at the time chose to build a single bridge across the river instead of two, using the bricks instead to build this medieval-style castle:

Dungu Castle from above

Vacation in Ghana, Part III

After a good night’s sleep in the Mole Motel (the only accommodation inside Mole National Park), I was up at 6AM on October 6th to meet up with the five German girls again. We ordered breakfast from the little motel restaurant, but they were so slow they hadn’t even boiled the water for the instant coffee by the time we had to leave to catch the 7AM walking safari in the park. The six of us joined three other pairs of tourists plus a park guide named Adam, and set off to see some wildlife. Over the course of almost four hours, we saw a few antelopes, warthogs, baboons, a monkey in the distance, and some birds.

Warthog in Mole National Park, Ghana
Monkeys in Mole National Park, Ghana

But of course, the main goal was to see elephants! The park guides all carry mobile phones with them, so they call each other to find out who’s seen elephants and then the others can head that way. This makes it far more likely for tourists to see elephants. Once another guide had called Adam to tell him where he’d spotted a group of five male elephants by a watering hole, we headed that way. The only problem was the big marsh, complete with narrow but fast-flowing river running through, that stood between us and the watering hole in the far distance. After a bit of discussion, we decided to risk ruining our shoes by sloshing through the mud and swamp water, and carefully crossing the river which came up higher than my knees. I was glad to be wearing my knee brace, as I could feel my kneecap trying to dislocate from the lateral pressure of the water while I slowly made my way across – it definitely wouldn’t have held out on its own.

We eventually made it all the way to the watering hole and spent a fair bit of time observing the five elephants, the largest of whom had a ridiculously long left tusk, showing his old age.

Savannah elephants in Mole National Park, Ghana
Savannah elephants in Mole National Park, Ghana
An old bull elephant in Mole National Park, Ghana

Having had our fill of elephant-watching, we headed back toward the park motel, crossing through a different part of the marsh and then another river that was much less powerful, but a fair bit wider and deeper than the first one. This time the water came halfway up my thighs!

Crossing a river in Mole National Park, Ghana

On arriving back at the motel, I spent a full hour in my bathroom washing the mud out of my only pair of shoes, plus my socks and trousers, then left them out to dry in the sun. I also saw a non-colourful agama lizard outside my room; I’ve seen a LOT of agamas in different countries, as far east as Uganda and as far west as Côte d’Ivoire (they can be found even farther in each direction, I just haven’t been that far!), but they’ve always been quite brightly coloured… purple, blue, red, orange, but this was the first time I’d seen one which seems to have had his colours taken away:

White-headed agama lizard, Mole National Park, Ghana

In the afternoon, the German girls invited me to join them for a canoe trip on a nearby river, so we all jumped into (and onto) a Nissan 4×4 vehicle with a park guide and headed to a small village outside the park to pick up two of villagers who would take us in their canoes. While we waited for the two men, the village chief suggested we get a good view of his village by climbing up these steps onto a roof of questionable structural integrity:

Very cool stairway in Mognori, Ghana

The canoe trip was very relaxing. We saw a few birds, including a kingfisher (I’ve now seen different types of kingfisher on every continent I’ve visited), and a bunch of kids playing in the water.

River canoes
Canoeing on Mole River, Ghana

On the dusk drive back to the park motel, I got to sit on the roof with two of the German girls, who chatted with me about the challenges of assimilating refugees and other immigrants into German and Swedish society.

Riding on the roof

Back at the motel we watched the sunset and were visited by a baboon looking for food.

Baboon visit at dusk, Mole National Park, Ghana

The six of us then ate dinner, three of us had a quiet beer, and by 9PM we had all gone to bed exhausted.

To be continued…

A trip in a car to see Babar in Côte d’Ivoire

Monday was a public holiday here in Côte d’Ivoire. A quiet day in the office made for a peak period of paperwork productivity. It also meant I could take an hour off to jump in the car of my friends from Solidarités (a French NGO that seemingly employs only extremely friendly people, based on my experience living in one of their bases in the Congo last year, and hanging out with their staff in South Sudan later on) and go for a spin. But this drive was no meaningless midday Monday meander; rather, it was with the express intent of seeing an elephant, that we set off for Sapia, a small village on the outskirts of town.

One of my off-duty guards came with us on the trip, and when we arrived in Sapia he pointed the driver toward the home of the brother of another of our staff members, to ask for information about the elephants. You see, the rumour had spread back on Thursday that there were wild elephants in Sapia, and hundreds of locals had thronged to the area to see them. Elephants aren’t a common sight here; the internet says that both savanna and forest elephants in Côte d’Ivoire are facing extinction. Most of our staff told me they’ve never seen one in person, with the exception of a few who’ve seen one in a zoo as a child.

Now, having arrived in Sapia, and seeing no elephants in sight, we found the aforementioned brother of another, and asked him what he knew. “Well,” he said, “they were here for three days, just there across the street, but they’ve left now. They’re heading back toward Bouaflé, they’ve set off into the forest near Caillou. If you want, I could come with you and maybe we’ll manage to find them there.” Of course, our new friend was welcomed into the car and off we set down a dirt road.

All along this road, there were streams of people walking in both directions, as if it were a market day nearby. However, after a while, we came up on a group of people gathered in one spot at the roadside, for no apparent reason. Past that, there were barely any people on the road at all. Of course, they were there for the same reason as us – elephants. So we parked the car, asked the kids for a quick summary of the facts, and within seconds were setting off through the forest down narrow winding paths and over big tree roots and past small cocoa plantations. After a brisk ten minute walk we found a crowd of about fifty to sixty people all staring in the same direction across a small clearing in the forest.

We looked to the right, where all the others were staring, and there it was – an elephant. Now, this was not like the elephants I had seen up close in Southeast Asia, which were a little bit frightening and certainly quite amazing. No, standing a mere twenty metres away from us was a living, breathing, walking concrete parkade. This thing was GINORMOUS! Out of a family of five, the one elephant we got to see was apparently the biggest. Check out his tree-eating skills:

Elephant, outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

He didn’t seem to mind the people hanging around, except when the crowd became too loud or too close, at which point he flared his ears and started to lumber in our direction.

Elephant, outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

Seeing as how a lot of the younger people in the crowd clearly had no idea how to keep a safe distance and avoid loud noises, we decided we’d enjoyed ourselves enough and we headed for home each in one piece.

The photos don’t do justice to the size of this guy. Only there on the ground, where you could see the size of the trees next to him, and the people around you, was it possible to fully grasp just how unbelievably enormous he is. To see an animal of that size was amazing. To help you understand how big he was, I’ve added a fully grown skateboarding fiddler to the photo for scale:

Elephant with skateboarding fiddler for size comparison