February 2012: A journey deep into the central African jungle to photograph western lowland gorillas, forest elephants and agile mangabey monkeys, and to spend time with the Ba'Aka pygmies.

CAR is a troubled country, with Joseph Kony still operating to the east in Sudan and DRC, regular rebellions in the north and very limited rule of law outside of the capital, Bangui. But there is a pocket of protected forest in the remote south-western tip of the country in a reserve known as Dzanga Sangha, where the Sangha river meets Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. This large (but shrinking) tract of virgin rainforest houses an extraordinary array of indigenous wildlife. If the country can stabilise, the potential for wildlife tourism is huge - but at present the majority of westerners here seem to be aid workers or missionaries.
Elloj at the wheel in the KM5 district of Bangui. The bumpy, dusty drive from here to Dzanga Sangha takes about 12 hours - much longer if there has been heavy rain.
Bangui - Elloj's house is on the left.
KM5, a busy market area to the west of Bangui. Best avoided at night.
Service station, Boda.
Kids at Bambio, a small roadside settlement roughly halfway between Bangui and Bayanga.
Offy, Nola - about two hours north of Bayanga.
Motingi, my Ba'Aka tracker on the trek to Dzanga Bai.
Dzanga Bai - a huge clearing in the middle of the jungle where herds of up to 200 forest elephants congregate to suck up mineral deposits.
One of the great things about Dzanga Bai is that you can photograph the elephants at eye level. There is a large wooden mirador, or viewing platform, which gives you a great perspective when you want to take in the panorama of the clearing, but animal portraits never look very good when shot from above. So when you want to get a bit closer to the action, you can stand underneath the platform - as long as you don't make too many sudden movements - and photograph dozens of elephants just a few metres away. At Mbeli Bai in the neighbouring Republic of Congo - where I shot elephants in 2010 - the grass is so tall, and the swamp so deep that if you stood beneath the platform you wouldn't see a thing.
Bongo enjoying the mud at Dzanga Bai. The Bongo is the largest antelope found in the African rainforest.
I've photographed African elephants at close range dozens of times all over the continent - but always in vehicles or from viewing platforms. This was the first time I'd gotten so close to elephants on foot with nothing between me and them, and it was one of the highlights of the trip.
Christian and Elloj grabbing 40 winks.
Mongambe group, Dzanga Sangha. These western lowland gorillas have been habituated over the last eight years or so, which is about how long it takes for a group to feel comfortable in the presence of humans.
Western lowland gorillas live in dense forest and are tough to photograph. Two years ago I photographed the group at Mondika in the Congo and faced similar challenges: very low light and thick foliage. You can be five metres from a large gorilla and yet have no shot because the undergrowth is so dense. Most of these photos are shot at 3200 ISO, 1/80th shooting handheld with a 400mm lens (at f4) - made possible by Image Stabilisation and the 5D MII's low-light performance.
It was about an hour's walk from the basecamp at Mongambe before we found them. The gorillas are tracked all day every day by researchers, who radio back their current location to the base.
Mayele, the dominant male silverback of the Mongambe group.
The baby of the group. The Mongambe group consists of 14 individuals, led by Mayele.
Sometimes, even for a large male silverback gorilla, it all just gets a bit too much.
Basketball in Bayanga. The court was built by a tour company for residents of this small, extremely remote town in the the rainforest. Bayanga has an official team that plays other sides from around CAR - I got to photograph one of their training sessions. To give some context, it was about 35 degrees and extremely humid - I was sweating profusely just taking pictures.
Butcher, Bayanga.
Ba'Aka pygmies, a few miles south of Bayanga. This was just before a net hunt began - a traditional Ba'Aka technique for catching deer, hogs and other ground-dwelling forest mammals. Women take part in the hunt alongside the men.
Motingi, my Ba'Aka tracker for the duration of the trip.
The principle of net hunting is that instead of hunting silently, the Ba'Aka make a huge racket in the jungle - singing and shouting. Because there are so many of them, spread out, the animals hide and wait, trying to work out where to run to. The pygmies then lay their nets and beat the bush until the animals charge headlong into the nets. It took a few attempts before they were successful on this occasion, but the outcome was brutal.
The unfortunate blue duiker - a small species of antelope.
The Ba'Aka butchered the duiker there and then in the forest and wrapped the meat up in leaves to make it easier to share the load.
The wrapped-up leaves contain the remains of the duiker. Nothing was left and nothing was wasted.
The 15 people in this photo, plus the person taking the photo (me) all somehow managed to squeeze into a single Landcruiser. Fortunately we only had to drive a few miles back to the Ba'Aka village.
The Ba'Aka village - where dinner was prepared. The pink bowl is full of fou fou - manioc flour. This is the staple of the Central African Republic, and indeed this part of central Africa generally. It is extraordinarily low in nutrients, almost like eating wallpaper paste - which is why you see lots of kids with distended bellies. They keep eating the fou fou, but their bodies are simply not getting the nutrition they need.
Sharpening of the teeth - using a chisel - is a Ba'Aka tradition.
Another Ba'Aka tradition is a form of rudimentary tattooing, using razor blades.
Dinner time.
The Sangha river, just north of Bayanga. Pirogues - long, narrow dugout canoes - are the favoured mode of transport here. Having spent quite a lot of time in them in the Congo, they don't fill you with a great deal of confidence, especially when you're carrying lots of camera equipment, due to what is technically known as "wobblyness".
Dusk over the Sangha River. Just a few miles further to the south the river meets Cameroon to the west and the Republic of Congo to the south.
Day two tracking western lowland gorillas. Due to the Bai Hokou group calving I spent the second day with the Mongambe group once more.
With Motingi and one of the Ba'Aka trackers from basecamp.
The facilities, Bai Hokou
Agile mangabey monkeys normally live in groups of 20 or so, but at Bai Hokou there is a habituated group of around 200 individuals.
The forest near Bai Hokou is a little less dense than at Mongambe, so there's more available light. But the mangabeys are a lot smaller than gorillas and seem to be constantly on the move - so photographing them was initially a fairly fruitless exercise. But after about 20 minutes we reached a very small clearing where they briefly paused, congregating in quite large numbers. Suddenly I found myself surrounded on all sides and I got a sense of just how big the troop is.
Mangabey kung fu.
We drove down the same forest tracks every day - and each day we had to cut our way through at least two new trees that had fallen. If no vehicles came through here for a month, I suspect you would struggle to find the roads again.
You can't see me, but I'm very helpfully taking photos.
Nola, where I first began to suspect there might be something wrong with the car. Some kind of sixth sense, I guess.
Morning, Nola, Central African Republic. Bangui is the only real city in the entire country and Nola - a tiny dusty town - is actually one of the larger settlements outside the capital.
About 40 miles from the nearest town, we broke down. Incredibly, after an hour or so, we managed to find a mechanic in one of the surrounding villages. A good thing too - there was absolutely no hope of mobile reception there or anywhere near there.
The enforced pause gave me the opportunity to meet some of the residents of Tokode, a village of a dozen or so homes.
The repair job, which took around five hours, drew a number of local experts.
Dusk with a beer, finally back in Bangui. The outward journey took 12 hours - the return just over 20. This is the Oubangui River, and the opposite bank is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I was two years ago, photographing bonobos.
Back to Top