After six years of preparations, Odzala Wilderness Camps launched last August as the first luxury-safari operation in the Congo basin. The lodging consists of two compounds in different sectors of the 5,250-square-mile Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo.
At each, six stilt-raised chalets – luxury versions of the indigenous B’Aka pygmies’ conical thatched huts – offer 360- degree views of swampy clearings where bongo antelope, forest elephants and red river hogs graze and drink. The main action is at Ngaga Camp, situated within the 30-square kilometer Ndzehi Forest, which has one of the highest recorded concentrations of western lowland gorillas. There, older male gorillas known as silverbacks can reach 400 pounds and stand 6 feet tall.
Although more numerous than the mountain gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey, the park’s western lowland gorillas – a slimmer and shorter-haired but no less imposing species – had never been habituated to tourism until University of Barcelona researcher Magdalena Bermejo took on the Odzala project for German philanthropist Sabine Plattner. She and her husband, Hasso Plattner, billionaire co-founder of software giant SAP AG, hope that gorilla trekking will help protect the Central African rain forest from poaching and woodcutting while benefiting the 10,000 people living in and around the park.
Trekking groups are limited to just four guests – half the size of standard mountain-gorilla-viewing parties in Rwanda – and there’s no steep uphill slog. However, gently undulating terrain can be boggy, and hikes through thick undergrowth last two to seven hours depending on where three habituated gorilla families (totaling more than 50 individuals) are feeding. General game viewing – the park has 114 mammal species and more than 400 bird species – takes place by 4x4, foot and pirogue, a traditional boat carved from a single log.
Don’t feel bad if you missed last summer’s opening: Gorilla and other wildlife sightings, already reliable, will only get better as the animals grow more accustomed to human interlopers. The 2013 season runs May 2 through Dec. 25.