As I lay completely still in the pitch darkness, I took stock of things. My feet were like two wounded warriors, bruised and beaten by the day. They screamed at me in rhythmic throbs, keeping time with my heartbeat. My back and shoulders were tight knots contorted in protest. Knees, hips and ankles all joined the aching chorus but were easily drowned out by the soaring clamor inside my dusty socks.
Expedition team members Lisa Faust, Maureen Leahy and Steve Ross (left–right), led by Congolese guides, navigate a stretch of swampy river in Nouaboule-Ndoki National Park.
My skin was covered in a surprising assortment of detritis and bits of vegetation, and streaks of grime ran across my forearm. Beads of sweat glistened on my forehead from the oppressive, humid heat. But despite these maladies, my mouth took its own tack as a slow grin spread across my tired face.
I had arrived at one of the most special places on earth: the Goualougo Triangle. Lying deep within the forests of the Republic of Congo, it is the inner sanctum of the Nouaboule-Ndoki National Park.
My feet cringed as I recalled our day’s journey. It began with a relatively benign truck ride from the park headquarters in Bomassa. The roads were bumpy and vegetation thrashed our vehicle for about an hour until we reached the entrance to the park. There, our team heaved our substantial baggage into two rustic dugout canoes floating quietly on the Mbeli River. We silently snaked through the murky waters drawn shallow by the dry season and watched dappled jungle scenes pass by us on all sides. The skillful porters guided us successfully through a myriad of sandbars, only once threatening to topple the assemblage into the slow river, cameras and all.
Team members Lisa Faust (front row), Maureen Leahy, Steve Ross (back row, left–right) and Dave Morgan (far right) pause mid-trek for a group portrait with their Congolese guides.
When we docked at our destination it was just minutes before 11 a.m., but the burning equatorial sun was blocked from view by the encompassing forest canopy. We leapt from the boat, eager to start the walk to the Goualougo Triangle base camp more than 9 miles away.
Our procession tramped into the forest one by one—some with years of experience traversing the route and others, like myself, making their maiden voyage. The rarity of this opportunity was not lost on me. I was one of only a very small group of Westerners to ever gain access to these pristine forests. Several times I lost my footing on a small ground vine simply because my eyes were turned skyward to take in the incredible sights and sounds of the forest.
Hours passed and water bottles were drained as the day drew on. A chorus of chimpanzees echoed in the distance. Recent tracks from a forest elephant were stamped across our pathway. A million colorful varieties of mushrooms stretched out from every fallen tree. We walked and walked and then walked some more.
Base camp in the Goualougo Triangle was a welcome sight for the tired travelers.
After only one kilometer the terrain degenerated to swampy river. We donned our water sandals and proceeded cautiously into the dark water, which quickly rose to our knees. Unseen below the surface of the water mud squished between our toes and over our ankles, desperately seeking to slow our progress. The water was seasonally low (it hadn’t rained here for weeks), but nonetheless the sensation of trepidatious footing and the prospect of inquisitive underwater creatures taking a closer look was unnerving to say the least. As we progressed, the water grew deeper, now up to our thighs, and we collectively lifted up our baggage to avoid the wetness.
Finally we trudged out of the water like primordial creatures stepping on dry land for the first time. After a quick check for the addition of African leeches to our party (none found—success!), we turned down the home stretch, eager to see our temporary home. It was past 5 p.m. now and dusk was starting to settle. Through the foliage the faint dance of a campfire could be seen and friendly voices rose to greet us. We had made it to the Goualougo Triangle, and the the day’s aches, pains and blisters faded into the background, relegated to insignificant antagonists in a day filled with amazing memories.
VIDEO: Trek to the Goualougo Triangle
Reaching the Republic of Congo's remote Goualougo Triangle Ape Project field site—home to wild gorillas and chimpanzees—is no walk in the park. To get there on their recent expedition, Lincoln Park Zoo researchers required a succession of aircraft, Land Rovers, an automobile river ferry, dugout canoes and—for the final, arduous 6-hour trek—their own two tired feet. Experience their journey to base camp in this travelogue video.