Getting to Goualougo

October 2, 2023

Diving Deeper: Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, Part I

Day 1:

The journey from Chicago to the Goualougo Triangle in the Republic of Congo makes “trains, planes, and automobiles” seem like a straight shot. To begin, a series of flights across the Atlantic Ocean transports Lincoln Park Zoo researchers from the United States to Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo.

After a long day of travel, a stay at Hotel Hippocampe in the center of the city is a must, complete with visits from local stray dogs and cats. If there is any energy left, dinner at a restaurant on the river overseeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the only place in the world where two country capitals sit this close together—is a great way to wind down.

Day 2:

At sunrise it’s time to hit the road from Brazzaville to the town of Oyo. A GPS will tell you it’s a five-hour drive, but any Congolese knows it takes nearly eight hours to make this drive, as once you exit the highway you’ll enter the crater-filled dirt roads which put Chicago potholes to shame. Roads are shared with trucks, motorcycles, buses, and logging trucks all filled to the brim with goods and people to transport.

Day 3:

Another day of driving is required before making it to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) base camp in Bomassa, the main village outside the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. It is up and at ‘em by 6 a.m. to hit the road from Oyo to Ouesso—another five-plus-hour drive in a van packed with researchers and gear. As the roads near the National Park, both street signs and fresh dung indicate that elephants are nearby. Lizards sprint across the hot asphalt as hamerkops and hornbills fly overhead. The official roads end here. The van must cross a large river on a barge typically meant for logging trucks and other goods.

After that point, the map of red dirt roads are made up of temporary logging roads, winding their way to the Bomassa camp, another several-hour drive. The WCS Bomassa camp is an incredible space where food and an appreciation of the jungle are shared. At the dinner table, researchers speak English, French, Spanish, and Lingala, often speaking in their second or third language to carry on a conversation.

map of central africa showing goualougo and djeke triangles

Day 4:

Because Bomassa is a settlement on the outskirts of the National Park, the fourth day of travel is when zoo researchers finally get a taste of the forest. After about an hour-long bumpy drive through mud roads, the cars can go no further—it’s time to board dug-out canoes to utilize the Earth’s natural aquatic roadway: a reed-filled river. After an hour of solid core work and keeping balance on wooden stools in the canoes, the rest of the journey must be complete on foot.

For the next six hours, trackers, researchers, and porters with hefty packs on their backs hike through the forest utilizing old elephant trails that form the paths of least resistance—though, the team will nevertheless face plenty of that. The hike is filled with calls of “Root!”, “Rock!”, “Fire ants!” as they warn one another to watch their step. There are multiple points in the hike where changing (or removing) shoes is necessary as the elephant trails become waist-deep treks through swamps home to chevoratains and crocodiles. While the water’s vegetation keeps the water relatively clean, its depth requires more shouts of “Log!”, “Watch your step!”, and “Grab this branch!” It’s important to keep a steady clip and beat the sunset, as territorial forest elephants are much harder to see, and therefore much more dangerous in the dark.

The pathway eventually leads to what seems like an odd sight—dozens of rusted sardine cans strung up between trees forming an “elephant alert” system, which is when researchers know they have finally reached the Goualougo Triangle base camp.

Goualougo Base Camp to Mondika Base Camp

After days or weeks in the Goualougo Triangle, zoo researchers often head to the Mondika base camp in the Djeke Triangle. This requires the same hike back to WCS Bomassa base camp (that six-hour hike through trails and swamps, a one-hour boat, and a one-hour drive), beginning no later than 4:45 a.m. to maximize daylight. Plus, there’s another two- to three-hour hike to the Mondika base camp through the winding jungle paths.

Goualougo Triangle Packing List

Aside from your typical packing list and provided tents, a trek to the Goualougo Triangle requires some specialized items, designed for the area’s specific conditions. There’s no electricity, so researchers need batteries. They’ll need bags for porting goods through swamps, a portable source of clean water, muted colors for items so they don’t attract wildlife, and protection for all supplies in humid, chilly, and rainy conditions. Of course, emergency items are also required here.

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