inyathi

Gabon and São Tomé & Principe 10th Feb to the 2nd March 2008

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In February 2008 I went on a safari to Gabon and the neighbouring islands of Sao Tome & Principe. Having recently joined this website I thought I should try and write a trip report as there isn’t a lot of information about Gabon on the internet. I hope this proves to be of interest.

 

After arriving in Libreville at about 6.30 p.m. on the 10th February, it took a long time to get through the airport, checking in at the Meridien Re-Ndama Hotel was also painfully slow. Service in the restaurant was no faster making for a rather later night than we would have chosen.

 

Day 1 11th February Libreville – Port Gentil – Omboué – Evengué Island

 

Despite the best efforts of the Meridien Hotel, failing to deliver room service and taking an age to collect our luggage, we managed to get to the airport on time to catch the scheduled flight to Port Gentil. During the hour long flight we were given a drink and a cake which was surprisingly made in Indonesia, an example of how almost all food in Gabon is imported, well I guess if you have oil you can afford to. Although oil produces the most revenue Gabons' biggest industry sadly is logging

 

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We then transferred to a little Pilatus Porter for the hour long flight down to the town of Omboué. The flight provided beautiful views of the Gabonese coastline with its lagoons, swamps and large expanses of savannah forest mosaic looking in places a little like a giant golf course. From the airport we walked down to the jetty on the Nkomi/Fernan Vaz Lagoon and boarded a boat for the 10km trip out to Evengué Island.

 

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Evengué Lodge is a beautiful little place with 5 wooden bungalows either on the edge of the lagoon or back towards the edge of the forest. The young Italian guy who was managing the lodge produced excellent food served on the veranda of the main building looking out at the lagoon.

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It was fairly hot and humid when we arrived mid-morning, after a brief attempt to bird in the garden and forest edge it started to thunder and then rain, carrying on for much of the afternoon. Evengué Island is also the HQ for the Fernan Vaz Gorilla Project which looks after gorillas orphaned by the bushmeat trade, the younger ones are rehabilitated and prepared for life back in the wild. When the rain stopped we walked over to have a look, after carefully disinfecting our footwear we were taken to a large enclosure where a big silverback Mabeke and his companions live.

 

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Mabeke

 

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Owendja

 

After a lifetime in captivity Mabeke will never return to the wild, to see such a magnificent animal behind a fence was very sad but at least he was in his natural habitat. We were then briefly shown some youngsters in a more forested enclosure who are being taught the skills needed to survive in the wild and were told that they would soon be moved to the much bigger island just next door to live a proper wild existence in preparation for their eventual release.

 

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On our return to the lodge it started to rain again so a proposed boat trip in search of birds was cancelled.

 

More to follow

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Beautiful photos! I'm looking forward to learning more.

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Fascinating, what an experience. Look forward to more.

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An Indonesian cake, consumed in Gabon. Very international.

 

It's easy to see the results of the biggest industry from your aerial shots.

 

Thanks for sharing this unique trip with us. Looking forward to the rest.

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Very interesting so far, inyahti, and you're right -- not much about Gabon on here... Thanks for providing some new info in this and your subsequent posts...

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Thanks for all the comments,

 

Day 2 12th February Evengué Island – Mission St Anne – Mpivié River – Loango Lodge

 

Fortunately it was not raining when we left by boat along the shoreline of the lagoon stopping briefly at the Mission Church of St Anne du Fernan Vaz.

 

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This little church built entirely of iron was designed by Gustav Eiffel, the components were made in France and then shipped to Gabon, Monsieur Eiffel remained in France to work on another project in Paris.

 

Just after the church we left the lagoon and entered “The Heart of Darkness” or so it seemed as we motored up the Mpivié River, the surrounding swamp forest formed great green curtains of vegetation lining each bank of this little black water river.

 

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As the river narrowed we scanned fallen and leaning trees for basking slender-snouted crocodiles and pythons, these small fish eating crocs climb in to trees to catch the sun’s rays as there are no sandbanks to lie on.

 

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At times the water looked like black glass

 

White-throated blue swallows and Cassin’s grey flycatchers hawked for insects over the river and a finfoot made a brief appearance swimming along the forest edge. Then to our complete surprise we saw what appeared to be a safari vehicle parked in the river as we drew alongside it became clear that although in the water the car was actually parked on the end of a road.

 

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After climbing in to the car we drove through the forest and across some quite large areas of open savannah grassland. The most noticeable thing about these grassland areas is the almost complete absence of large grazers, as far as I know most of the familiar large savannah antelopes and other herbivores that you find in East or Southern Africa have at least in recent historical times never existed in Gabon. After an hour or so we arrived at Loango Lodge which sits on the shore of the Iguela Lagoon just outside Loango NP looking across in to the park.

 

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In the afternoon we were taken across the lagoon a short distance to where some of the vehicles are kept and then driven out in to a strip of savannah. After only a few minutes we stopped jumped out and walked over to the edge of a patch of forest, before entering the forest our two guides gave us a safety briefing not surprisingly this was in French. Thinking I had perhaps only understood roughly 75% of what I’d just been told I was very glad to have been walking in Africa many times before. Once inside the forest we disappointingly saw almost no birds but quite soon encountered a forest elephant, our guides were both unarmed which is quite normal in Gabon. The basic rule when walking in the forest is to always have one guide in front and one behind and in the event of an encounter ne paniquer pas. Forest elephants are not considered that dangerous when encountered in the open but in the forest it’s a different storey, at our guides’ signal we hastily reversed back down the trail, without even trying to get a look. Further on we came across a mother and calf in an open patch we stopped to watch them from the forest but they quickly fled.

 

After our rather exciting walk we continued by car across the savannah stopping to photograph an elephant on our way over to the beach.

 

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Forest elephants known locally as assala are much smaller than bush elephants and have rounder ears and straighter more downward pointing tusks.

 

 

Passing a small herd of elephants emerging from the coastal bush we came upon a forest buffalo standing rather incongruously right on the edge of the surf.

 

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In Loango during the wet season animals often come to the shore to graze on the salt laden vegetation. After a sundowner beside a narrow channel known as Louri Lagoon we returned to the lodge passing more forest elephants on the way.

 

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After dinner I opted to go on a crocodile catching trip on Iguela Lagoon, the French lodge manager Philippe said that it was possible to go out with some researchers to catch crocodiles so that blood samples could be taken for study. In fact I was just taken out by a couple of guides, I had hoped that as well as crocs I might catch a glimpse of some nocturnal wildlife but despite boating someway around the edge of the lagoon we saw precisely nothing. They did eventually manage to catch a tiny baby Nile croc which was then released without taking blood so the whole exercise was really pretty pointless.

 

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Day 3 13th February Loango Lodge – Tassi Savannah Camp

 

In the morning we boated across to the car park and then drove with a trailer full of supplies the 25kms down through the open grasslands to Tassi Savannah Camp. On the way we saw a few elephants, several small herds of forest buffalos and the occasional sitatunga.

 

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Forest buffalos and woolly-necked stork, it's hard to believe these animals are the same species as the familiar Cape buffalo. There were in fact 12 animals in this herd which is the average herd size for forest buffalos.

 

At one point our driver stopped because he’d spotted some red river hogs but they disappeared, however as we scanned the landscape in the hope of seeing them we saw to our slight amazement a group of chimps away in the distance crossing from one patch of forest to another.

 

Tassi is a nice little camp consisting of five tents on wooden platforms and a covered bar/dining area in the open savannah with a nice view down to the Atlantic in front and across the grassland to the forest behind.

 

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The view down to the Atlantic

 

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In the afternoon we drove to the Max Planck Institute research camp at Tassi Sud half an hour away, a very hot drive. There we met a nice young American woman who was habituating a local gorilla group so that she could study them. Chimps are also being habituated and in the near future tourists will be taken on treks to see both species. We chatted to the researchers for some time while our driver mended their quad bike and then set off on a game drive. Along with the usual elephants, buffalos and sitatungas we came across a nice group of red river hogs.

 

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Sitatunga are very common in Gabon

 

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Slightly smaller than bushpigs these beautiful hogs are quite common in Loango

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How amazing & heartening to hear that sitatunga are common in Gabon considering how elusive (and therefore rare? Am I wrong about that?) they seem to be in southern Africa.

Thanks so much for a very interesting report. Looking forward to reading more.

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Slightly smaller than bushpigs these beautiful hogs are quite common in Loango

 

They are indeed beautiful hogs.

 

Thanks so much for this fascinating report.

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Sitatunga! Cool...

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I don’t think sitatungas are necessarily that rare in say the Okavango they’re just very difficult to see because of the habitat. On my one visit to the Delta on a 1999 safari I had a very brief glimpse of a female as she disappeared through some reeds while on a boat trip from Kwara, had the boat not been quite high, I wouldn’t have seen anything. Otherwise I’ve had good views of sitatungas a long time ago in Akagera NP in Rwanda and Siawa Swamp NP in Kenya on both occasions from viewing towers, in each case being able to look down in to the reeds made all the difference.

 

In Loango around Tassi the habitat is much more open, mostly grass with a few small patches of shrubs and as you can see from the photo the grass was quite short. There were some small marshy areas but these were really just little grassy ponds with a few sedges and nothing very tall so seeing sitatungas was fairly easy.

 

I will post some more on Gabon quite soon

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Apparently one of the best spots for sitatunga is Kasanka National Park in Zambia. I have never been there, but it seems that if you visit a certain tree hide early in the morning you can watch up to 70 sitatungas in one single place....

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inyathi,

 

Did you see any forest duikers, bushbuck or bongo in Loango (or other places in Gabon you have visited)?

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Yes I saw various duikers later in the trip which I will come to, no bushbuck not sure why and no bongos. I think there probably are plenty of bongos in Gabon but they’re basically found in places that aren’t currently accessible. As far as I know at the moment the best place to see them is at Dzangha Bai in C.A.R. but I haven’t been there yet.

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Day 4 14th February Tassi

 

Due to a problem with one of the local elephants an electric fence had been put up around the camp however as it wasn’t switched on or in the best state of repair, I wasn’t too surprised to find fresh elephant spoor in the sand not far from my tent. During breakfast a large herd of red river hogs could be seen in the distance feeding along the edge of a forest patch. At 7:15 a.m. we drove for about 15 minutes out to a large forest patch where we walked for some time but inexplicably we saw nothing except for an African Giant squirrel, no birds or monkeys or anything else, I guess this was just bad luck. Back outside the forest after a discussion in rather limited French we agreed it was too hot to be worth trying elsewhere and opted to return to camp. Being in the open savannah and close to the sea there is a constant breeze which keeps the camp pleasantly cool.

 

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Just after 4 p.m. we drove down to the beach, the pale sand seemed to stretch for ever in both directions. To the south of us away in the distance we could just make out a small herd of elephants and decided to go and take a closer look.

 

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The sense of being in a pristine wilderness was spoilt somewhat by the amount of garbage washed up on the shore, plastic of allsorts including numerous flip-flops. A fair number of huge logs cut from the forests somewhere in the interior had also washed up. As we walked three buffalos ran off at our approach, and then a herd of elephants appeared half hidden in the coastal bush.

 

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We walked carefully past them and finally reached the elephants we’d first seen. One of our guides then led me round behind them so I could photograph them against the Atlantic Ocean, a nice reward for a good hours walk. This was the first time I’d walked up this close to herd of elephants with a guide who wasn’t armed, fortunately despite getting pretty close they were wholly unconcerned by our presence.

 

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On the return walk the guides were laughing and joking until in a moment of absent mindedness I walked a little too close to the edge of the lagoon. As one of them franticly waved at me I hastily retreated from the waters’ edge feeling a bit of an idiot. Having been to Africa many times I would normally be very cautious around water but walking along a beach as the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean had taken my mind of the potential danger. If there were any Nile crocs around, they thankfully remained hidden.

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Day 5 15th February Tassi – Loango Lodge

 

After our disappointing walk the previous morning, we wondered why we been driven to a forest some miles away when there appeared to be perfectly good forests right next to camp. Since none of the staff spoke more than a few words of English we had to discuss our options with the main guide in our very limited French. He agreed that we could walk from camp, so we set of at the same time in the morning and walked straight in to the nearest forest patch, only to discover that it was about the size of a postage stamp, the next patch proved to be not much bigger. Again we found no birds, however we did see fresh gorilla and chimp spoor which was interesting.

 

As the day was heating up there seemed little point in remaining at Tassi so we asked to return to the lodge for lunch. In the afternoon we boated around the Iguela Lagoon finding some elephants amongst the mangroves

 

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including one cow wearing a radio collar courtesy of Save the Elephants and WCS. We then headed out towards St Katherine’s Point where the lagoon meats the Atlantic Ocean to see a colony of Royal terns.

 

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On our return we saw several palmnut vultures though unusual birds to see in East Africa they are extremely common in Gabon.

 

Final post on Loango to follow, hopefully after that this report wont be quite so long I never imagined when I decided to do this that I would write so much.

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This is wonderful and exciting, visiting a whole new destination. Can't wait for more.

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Day 6 16th February Loango lodge – Rembo Ngowe River – Akaka – Loango Lodge

 

We got up early for the communal boat trip over to Akaka Bush Camp only to be held up by some other guests who chose to have a lie in. Our driver made up for lost time taking us at full speed down the lagoon south to the mouth of the Rembo Ngowe River slowing down as we passed a small colony of purple herons.

 

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Cruising slowly upstream we passed through mangroves, papyrus swamps, raffia palm jungle and swamp forest, every bend of the river presented another stunning view of this jungle wilderness.

 

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Squacco Heron

 

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Palmnut Vulture

 

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Alongside some of the more common African water birds we found a pair of Hartlaub’s ducks a bird found only in the rainforests of Western Africa. We also had our first views of the red-capped mangabey a rare monkey restricted to swamp and coastal forests around the Bight of Benin and one of the special mammals of Loango, followed by a much more common moustached monkey.

 

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Red-capped Mangabey

 

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Moustached Monkey

 

One of the guides also spotted a West African manatee but the most I saw was a ripple in the water.

 

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Akaka Bush Camp is situated in the forest overlooking the Rembo Ngowe River 66kms south of Loango Lodge.

 

At the time the camp was a bit of a wreck and was due to be completely refurbished, however the dining room where we enjoyed a nice packed lunch was in a reasonably good state of repair. On a short walk through the rainforest behind the camp we saw a few black-casqued hornbills but little else. Returning to the lodge in the afternoon we dropped of the other guests and carried on over to an island in the lagoon to search for the endemic Loango weaver. After finding the birds we made our way back to the lodge to discover a troop of red-capped mangabeys feeding in the trees behind the lodge garden.

 

At the airstrip near Loango Lodge we met Patrice Christy who would accompany us for the rest of our time in Gabon. Patrice is a Frenchman who knows more about the birds and other wildlife of the country than just about anyone. We then boarded the Pilatus Porter for the 2hr flight to the Ivindo airstrip.

 

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2 elephants can be seen in the foreground and a herd of buffalos are just visible in the top corner

 

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St Katherines

 

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Savannah Forest Mosaic

 

I couldn't resist putting in loads of photos, I had to take one out because I'd exceeded my limit but I thought the river trip was just so beautiful.

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I'm up to the red river hogs. Very pretty creatures. Nice to see an animal in the surf, a surfing buffalo. The sunning snout nosed croc is a nice find. Lots of different creatures.

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Thank you so much for this great trip report. Have been thinking about Gabon for a few years and there is so little information available.

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Amazing and unusual sightings … what a treat. That river is gorgeous. Thanks so much.

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Thanks Lynne, that’s exactly why I decided to write this, I would love to see more tourists visit Gabon, the more people who go to places like Loango there more chance there is of keeping out the oil companies and other eco vandals.

 

I will add some more posts and photos soon.

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This next part describes our visit to Langoue Bai in Ivindo NP unfortunately it’s no longer possible to visit this place, hopefully in the future the situation may change.

 

Day 7 17th Feb Loango Lodge – Ivindo NP – WCS Langoue Research Camp

 

Flew from Loango NP airstrip to Ivindo airstrip outside Ivindo Town a small logging town near Ivindo NP

 

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Ogooue River

 

The views of the forest as we landed were dramatic.

 

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We were then met by a car from WCS and driven out along a logging road through the forest in to the park until the road ran out. At that point we put on our backpacks loaded with only what we would need for the next four nights, leaving our excess luggage in the car and set off in to the forest. The first half hour was a moderately hard slog up a steep hill then the trail levelled out and it was quite easy from then on.

 

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One of the researchers carrying supplies to camp

 

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Some kind of viper I guess moving off the trail

 

After about 2 hrs of walking we arrived at the camp which was built on a rock shelf that formed a natural clearing in the forest. Near the camp we saw a rufous-sided broadbill and from the camp had views of grey-cheeked mangabeys a long way off in the tree tops.

 

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Langoue Research Camp was quite basic with dome tents, a communal shower block and a composting toilet. The food was quite good considering it all had to be carried in by the researchers.

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Glad you did not encounter a Nile croc when you ventured a few steps too far into the water. Must have been exciting to see the elephants. You viewed them on foot, right? The forest view really is dramatic with the shades of green. Let's hope the forests remain intact.

 

Did you see quite a few sitatunga? I'm thinking about Kasanka, like Paolo is, for sitatunga, bats, and whatever else is out and about.

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Yes we saw quite a few sitatungas in Loango, though they didn't always hang around to be photographed. We were incredibly lucky to be able to visit Langoue Bai as WCS closed their camp to tourists at the end of 2008, this was also a great place for sitatungas see below. There are similar places in Congo Brazzaville and also C.A.R. that can be visited where there are lots of sitatungas. Otherwise yes Kasanka would be the place to go along with the neighbouring Bangweolo swamp for the black lechwe and shoebill storks.

 

 

 

Day 8 18th Feb Langoue Bai in Ivindo NP

 

After breakfast we hiked over to Langoue Bai about an hour away from the camp the last part down a very steep hill. Bai is a BaAka pygmy word for a natural clearing in the rainforest such as this one along the Langoue River. It is generally thought that these clearings are slowly created over many centuries by forest elephants searching for essential minerals lacking from their food.

 

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The Bai is roughly 1km long and 300m wide and supports s profusion of grasses, sedges and other plants that would struggle to grow in the forest. These plants along with the Bai’s mineral rich waters attract large herbivores like forest elephants, forest buffalos, sitatungas and lowland gorillas.

 

 

 

We climbed up to the middle section of the viewing platform and sat in some plastic chairs to view the wildlife through the telescopes provided while the researchers went to work on the top deck. I had been forewarned that I might be able to borrow a Canon 500mm lens this lens with a 1.4x converter gave me 700mm and a stunning view without having to use a scope, luckily there was no one else who wanted to use it. Over at the waterhole/wallow six forest elephants were including a tiny baby were drinking, accompanied by two wallowing buffalos and lots of cattle egrets. Some of the elephants had their trunks pushed down in to the mud and were blowing bubbles they do this to stir up the minerals.

 

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Elephants, buffalos and sitatunga

 

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blowing bubbles

 

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sitatunga.

 

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sitatunga

 

We were then distracted by a commotion in a tree some distance away a troop of grey-cheeked mangabeys came and went followed by some putty-nosed monkeys which proceeded to chase each other around the tree.

 

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Around midday the elephants left in a panic for some reason

 

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the calf in the middle was very small

 

and then a family of gorillas arrived emerging from the forest on the opposite side of the Bai to drink after a while they disappeared kindly returning after we’d had lunch.

 

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Great blue turaco a common bird at the Bai

 

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Elephant, sitatunga and cattle egrets

 

Finally a single elephant appeared and started chasing egrets.

 

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Pesky egrets

 

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Viewing platform, over in the far distance (to the left) you can just make out the waterhole where the elephants were drinking, which gives an idea of how far away they were.

 

We left the Bai at about 16:20 to get back to camp well before dark, because of elephants it’s not considered safe to walk through the forest in the dark. By the end of the day I’d taken over 900 photos more than I’ve taken on whole safaris in pre digital days. Overall this was one of the most extraordinary days I've ever spent on safari.

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