The Republic of the Congo is not a destination for first-time visitors to Africa. For starters, its neighbors are the ever-troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic. And as it is on the equator, heavy rainstorms, violent lightning and swampy forests are the norm. The nation’s four million inhabitants live primarily in the capital, Brazzaville, or in the west-coast Pointe Noire, limiting access to the country’s forests and jungles.
But the moment you fly out of Brazzaville (from Paris or Johannesburg) over the muddy waters of the wide Congo River, you understand the appeal—miles of undisturbed, unexplored forest like nowhere else in the world. It is only since Wilderness Safaris opened two luxury camps last year in Odzala-Kokoua National Park that the Congo’s interior has even become reasonably accessible to visitors. The park’s 3.36 million acres of forest are home to more than 430 bird and 100 mammal species and, most important, Africa’s highest density of endangered forest elephants and western lowland gorillas. (The greatly threatened mountain gorillas are found in Rwanda, Uganda and parts of the DRC.)
Wilderness Safaris’ camps, located a three-hour drive apart, feature similar accommodations—six simple, reed-thatched, beehive-shaped stand-alone rooms with netted beds, hot showers and solar-powered lights—but very different adventures. At Lango, the prettier of the two camps, whose decks overlook grassland grazed by antelope and buffalo, activities center around exploring by foot, vehicle and kayak. Butterflies swoop through swamps, forests glow with exotic orchids and eerily quiet passageways of water over which iridescent malachite kingfishers and squawking gray parrots flit.
At Ngaga Camp, on a densely forested hillside on the park’s western boundary, the stars are the seven gorilla families habituated by Spanish primatologist Dr. Magda Bermejo and her husband, German Illera. Tracking the creatures on forest paths takes from an hour to a full day, and once found, each group of four guests gets to spend an hour watching them. (Time is restricted to avoid over-habituating the animals, as well as to limit their exposure to human diseases to which they have no immunity.)
Although it is not an easy safari, it is well put together. The food is unexpectedly fresh and delicious; the sweet staff is willing. “It is the most elite, first-class experience in Central Africa,” says safari expert Cherri Briggs about Ngaga. “But you have to be fit, healthy and someone who won’t worry if they have 50 bug bites on their legs and a drenched body that won’t dry out for hours, having walked through bogs for eight straight. If you’re that person, then it is without doubt the best place to see great apes in their natural habitat.”
Wilderness Safaris offers Congo packages starting at $5,885 a person for six nights; 27-11/807-1800; wilderness-safaris.com.
Mountain Gorillas: Uganda + Rwanda
Mountain gorillas, more critically endangered than their western lowland relative from the Republic of the Congo, are split into two distinct Central African populations: the central Virunga volcano range (spanning Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Volcanoes Safaris, founded by Uganda-born Praveen Moman, runs trips through both areas (from $2,600 a person for four days; 866-599-2737; volcanoessafaris.com), with stops at eco-friendly lodges along the way; one to note is Rwanda’s Virunga Lodge—while less luxurious, this is among Africa’s best locations, overlooking the Virunga Volcanoes. Volcanoes Safaris also takes guests on day trips to the grave of pioneering primatologist Dian Fossey, who worked around Virunga. In Uganda, Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge (rooms, from $180; Nkringo; 256-414/251-182; wildplacesafrica.com), in the southern part of Bwindi National Park, offers comfortable rooms at the end of a day’s trek (note the walking here is tough and steep). As to which country is best for tracking the primates, Rwanda is logistically more straightforward, with slightly easier visibility and trekking, which can be facilitated by specialist operator Will Bolsover at Natural World Safaris (from $3,090 for four days; 866-357-6569; naturalworldsafaris.com). —Sam Schube